Everyone knows Rome is the epicenter of the Catholic faith. But the Italian capital also claims Europe’s oldest Jewish Ghetto, located along the Tiber River. In 1555, Pope Paul IV forced Jews to live in this walled-in quarter because the area reeked of fish, frequently flooded and was prone to diseases. Nice guy, huh? It took over three centuries before city officials finally destroyed the Roman Ghetto’s walls. Ironically, the Roman-Jewish families who clung to their homes have had the last laugh; some of the city’s highest-valued real estate is now found in the Roman Ghetto!
The Best of the Roman Ghetto
The Roman Ghetto’s must-see attraction is the Great Synagogue, which also serves as a museum dedicated to the history of Roman Jews. Established in 1904, Rome’s Great Synagogue is one of the largest and most significant Jewish houses of worship in Italy. The museum resides underneath the synagogue proper and contains many fascinating artifacts. Usually Rome’s Great Synagogue is open Sundays through Wednesdays between 10AM–5PM and on Thursdays from 9AM–5PM.
One of the most popular selfie-spots in the Roman Ghetto is at the ancient “Mouth of Truth” sculpture. Weighing about one ton, this 1st century marble mask most likely depicts a sea god. Look familiar? You might recall it from the Audrey Hepburn film Roman Holiday. The reason it’s called the “Mouth of Truth” is due to a rumor that the mask eats the hands of liars…so be careful!
But the main attraction here is simply walking. As you wander the Roman Ghetto’s narrow cobblestone streets, you can’t help but get swept away in the visceral history of the district. Take plenty of time to explore numerous courtyards, tiny alleys and soak in the unique atmosphere.
Eat Well…But Choose Wisely
Since Roman authorities locked shut the Jewish Quarter’s walls every night, locals had to use whatever they could grab to stave off hunger. Many of the area’s signature dishes harken to the era, featuring simple staples such as cod and, of course, artichokes. Indeed, the most famous Roman-Jewish delicacy still cooked up here is a deep-fried artichoke. Hmmm, required eating.
It’s very hard to leave the Jewish Quarter feeling hungry, but it’s equally difficult to find a table at well-established restaurants. Do yourself a favor and book reservations well in advance if you want to eat at a historic restaurant. Also, keep in mind that many restaurants take advantage of the area’s culinary reputation to overcharge for mediocre fare. My advice: Do your research ahead of time and don’t make a spontaneous, “hangry” dining decision in the Roman Ghetto.
How to Find Rome’s Jewish Ghetto
Luckily for tourists, Rome’s Jewish Ghetto is within walking distance of some of Rome’s most popular attractions. Indeed, the Pantheon, Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and Colosseum are all within a 15-minute walking radius of the Jewish Ghetto. For those traveling by bus, hop on line 70 at the Roma Termini Station and exit at the Largo Torre Argentina. If traveling by Metro, exit at the Colosseo stop.